CONFUSION continues to reign this week over the ramifications of a High Court ruling to quash decision to proceed with the new A5 dual carriageway.
The Department of Regional Development (DRD) have been navigating uncharted legal territory since Monday, when Minister Danny Kennedy Minister confirmed he would not appeal Mr Justice Stephens’ ruling.
Yesterday (Wednesday), Mr Kennedy told the Ulster Herald that he believed that DRD no longer owns the large areas of land vested for the project following the High Court ruling.
Monday’s announcement from DRD came seven days after Mr Justice Stephens affirmed a judgement quashing the commencement of two sections of the project, linking Omagh to Ballygawley and Derry to Strabane, citing a failure to carry out an appropriate assessment of the Rivers Foyle and Finn Special Areas of Conservation under the Habitats Directive.
The objection raised by the Alternative A5 Alliance surrounded the alleged failure of DRD to properly assess the impact on two salmon rivers. It was the sole objection upheld by the High Court. Eleven others were rejected.
Roads Service have been left to carefully pour over the extensive High Court ruling to assess their current legal standing. This week, Danny Kennedy promised “no knee-jerk reactions”, and offered little clarity for landowners.
The Roads Minister stated his department will carry out a comprehensive assessment on the Habitats Directive, an approach he said indicated DRD’s interest in progressing with the A5.
However even the most optimistic estimates suggest at least a 12 month delay in the 39km, £330m project. A more realistic estimate could be closer to two years.
Left in limbo this week are the confused landowners who have had land vested ahead of the major project. DRD originally said 1,200 hectares would be required for the A5, however that area was downgraded when the Omagh to Strabane section was deferred.
Tellingly, Mr Kennedy told the Srabanre Chronicle, “Technically and legally at this point, my understanding is that the land is not owned or vested by the department.”
Land agent Roy McCracken, who represents 27 local landowners, appears to support that interpretation of the High Court ruling. “I have been told the land now reverts back to the owners.”
But Roads Service would need to write to the farmers to make them aware of that, because there are a lot of assumptions being made that might not be correct,” he said, urging the minister to provide clarity.
The land agent revealed that in a bid to speed up the construction of the A5, Roads Service offered landowners 90 per-cent of the overall sum due for the purchase of their land.
“I don’t believe there was any proviso, that if the thing failed, that they would have to pay the money back,” he said.
The ramification is that some landowners could end up with both the cash and their land back. The Alternative A5 Alliance recently claimed that £750,000 had already been paid out to landowners.
Costs may also have to be shelled out to help landowners return vested lands to their original state.
That sum joins £47m already been spent on design costs and £10m spent on legal fees and various other costs.
“What is frustrating,” said Mr McCracken, “Is that a lot of farmers had recommended to Roads Service that they stay out of the land until such times as the result of legal challenge was known. They ignored that legal advice.”
In response Danny Kennedy said, “I’m conscious of the impact on landowners. The department will seek to engage with landowners to carefully work through the next steps in relation to land issues.
“We’re aware of work that has been done, compensation that has been paid in advance of a settlement.
“What we will seek to do is consult with those landowners and see what stage they’re at and what they’re content with at this stage. We are in a very fluid situation.”